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Japanese Buddhists blow winds of change with pipe organs


Pipe organs, for centuries considered a fixture in Christian places of worship, have been gaining a place in some Japanese Buddhist temples over recent decades.

Rissho Kosei-kai, a Buddhist lay movement, has used a pipe organ every day since 1965 for rituals and events at its headquarters in Tokyo. The organ is also used for concerts.

"The organ was installed after the late Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai, visited Europe, was moved by the sound of the organ at a Christian cathedral, and wished to enhance [our] religious quality with solemn music," an official of the movement told Ecumenical News International.

The Indian-style main hall of the Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple at the True Pure Land School of Buddhism in Tokyo also houses a pipe organ. This has been used since 1970 at services of worship, wedding ceremonies, funerals, monthly concerts, and other occasions.

The Rev. Ehan Numata, founder of the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (the Society for the Promotion of Buddhism), donated the organ to the temple after he returned from a visit to churches in the United States.

"We are modernising Buddhist music and promoting it to the general public in order to propagate Buddhism," the society said in a statement.

The Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai organ has about 2000 pipes of varying sizes, including 48 which are symmetrically arranged on the front of the organ by height, beginning from the middle and going down in size to the left and right of the central keyboard. Six other pipes are placed on each side of the organ. The society says the pipes reflect the 48 oaths for people’s salvation written into Pure Land Buddha Amida, and the six Chinese characters for "Namu Amida Butsu," a Japanese phrase that is recited to ask for salvation.

"Because pipe organs are recognised as an instrument for Christianity, people often look doubtful and say, ‘Pipe organs at temples?’" said the Rev. Koyu Kozutsumi, chief priest of a Zen Buddhist temple in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. However, Kozutsumi believes that, "Pipe organs sound very beautiful and solemn. Therefore, I think that they suit any religion." The chief priest himself plays a pipe organ at a local concert hall as a hobby.

"I know that pipe organs have mostly been used at Christian churches," said the Rev. Hoshin Fukui, chief priest of Meifukuji, a Pure Land School Buddhist temple in Tokyo. He installed a pipe organ there in 2000. "It gives good religious sound in the wooden main hall," the priest noted.

"The pipe organ’s sounds and human voices easily meld into each other, and they are effective in creating an atmosphere, as in Christian churches," explained Shigeru Ito, the organist and a music teacher at the Buddhist-run Musashino University in Tokyo. The university received a pipe organ from the Society for the Promotion of Buddhism in 1988.

One of the earliest examples of the use of a pipe organ by Buddhists can be found at the Buddhist-run Kyoto Women’s University, which installed an organ in one of its halls in 1961. An electric organ replaced the pipe organ in 2005.

(c) Ecumenical News International